Taking a walk on the mild side

IF YOU’RE heading down to the Lakes of Killarney in the next week or so you may encounter a large group of walkers out around the shores.

Nothing unusual in that. Kerry attracts a lot of walkers, often noisy and jovial from their exertions in the fresh air and generally clad in Gortex, carrying knapsacks on their backs.

This group, however, is different. They will walk slowly and silently in meditation, following a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has come to Kerry to teach them how to live their lives more mindfully.

Thich Nhat Hahn is one of the foremost spiritual leaders in Buddhism today and on Apr 12-15, 750 people will join him for a four-day residential retreat at the INEC in Killarney. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend his public lecture and Mindfulness Ireland, the group hosting his visit, has a waiting list of those who wish to attend. It follows a visit by the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, to Limerick last year where 3,000 — including GAA manager Micky Harte — showed up to listen.

Clearly the message of Buddhism is finding a following in this country. Allihies in west Cork is home to the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Retreat Centre and is also a parish in of the Diocese of Kerry. Last year it lost its resident parish priest — the first parish of the diocese to do so. At the time a spokesperson for the diocese, which caters for 144,000 Catholics, said within 10 years there would be only 25 priests covering the 53 parishes.

Far from being overwhelmed by this trend, Bishop of Kerry Bill Murphy has responded by setting up 12 pastoral areas, each with their own parish council. Getting lay people involved in the running of the Church has been a major goal for him during his time as head of the diocese.

“We shouldn’t associate spiritual guidance with priests alone,” he says. “Where did I get my spirituality from? From my parents, from school. Parents, teachers and other lay people are spiritual guides. Most of the chaplains in the secondary schools of Kerry are lay people now.”

Due to retire shortly, he is not surprised that a retreat such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s ‘Living Mindfully Today’ event would attract such a crowd. “There is a great hunger for spirituality today,” he says. “It has a lot to do with lifestyle and all the hustle and bustle. People are searching for meaning.”

The Killarney retreat focuses on the practice of ‘mindfulness’, which is essentially about slowing down the mind to be conscious only of the moment. Most minds are either racing ahead to the future or chewing over what happened in the past, and both practices tend to lead to anxiety. Meditation works on the principle of taking time out from these thoughts and emptying the mind to give it a break, but ‘mindfulness’ is about being constantly conscious of what you are doing during the activities of the day.

If you are ‘mindful’ when you put down your car keys, you are unlikely to have any trouble finding them next time you need them. Mary O’Callaghan from Mindfulness Ireland points out that the practice is not a withdrawal from the world but a greater connection with it. She has been teaching it for years and sees a rise in the number of people using it. “Everyone wants to be calmer,” she says. “Our minds tend to see-saw between past and future and we become more alienated from the world around us. Mindfulness is about meeting the world in a way that we can connect with it.”

The health services are beginning to consider ‘mindfulness’ as a practice that helps alleviate stress, anxiety and depression and Mary is in discussion with the HSE about running courses. While the capacity of the INEC was a prime reason for bringing the retreat to Killarney, having the lakes and the national park on hand for walking meditations was also an attraction. Killarney is a place with monastic heritage. Early Christian monks built an abbey on Innisfallen Island in Killarney’s Loch Lein.

“Isn’t it funny how the early Christian monasteries were located in places of great beauty and stillness — Inisfallen, Glendalough, Skelligs?” observes Bishop Murphy.

Earlier this year, the diocese held a talk by English Dominican Timothy Radcliffe in the Malton Hotel in Killarney, but even though it booked a room for 300-400 attendees, hotel staff were scurrying for extra chairs when a crowd of 700 people descended — some coming from as far away as Wexford and Clare. Like the Buddhists, Radcliffe advocates a more childlike, imaginative approach to the wonder of life and the message seems to be striking a chord.

“The Buddhists don’t have a monopoly on meditation,” points out Bishop Murphy. “It is also mentioned in the New Testament. The practices may take a different approach and I would approach it from a Christian position. Where the Buddhists are at an advantage is that they have mastered the techniques. We would be weak in technique; we would have to make it more accessible, but the concept is there.”

The Ardfert Retreat Centre in north Kerry is run by the diocese and has a full programme of retreats covering themes of reflection, meditation, prayer, healing and reconciliation, and guided prayer. Some workshops are focused on difficulties like alcoholism or bereavement; others dwell on the work of philosopher John Moriarty or priest Anthony de Mello who has written extensively about awareness — a concept similar to ‘mindfulness’.

Bishop Murphy doesn’t see any conflict in Catholics practising meditation and fully appreciates the trend towards it. “There is a certain attraction to Buddhism because it suits the individualism of the age we live in. Christianity is more about togetherness as a group and some people find that impersonal. But there are many different forms of spirituality,” he says.

“You have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place in churches throughout the Diocese; you have creation spirituality in nature; we have parish groups involved in reading the scriptures — Lectio divina groups.

“There are old Celtic Christian traditions. For instance, in Ballyheigue in north Kerry, everything shuts down on Pattern Day, Sep 8. There are holy wells. Pilgrimage is a form of spirituality. You had the Charismatic movement; it wouldn’t have been my cup of tea, all that moving about, but there are different forms. Sunday Mass, too, is still a source of spirituality to a lot of people.”

Practising ‘mindfulness’ is ultimately a solo activity, but learning it, according to Mary O’Callaghan of Mindfulness Ireland, is best done in a group setting with a guide.

“Firstly it involves a body scan which brings you in to the body,” she explains. “Then there is the calming of the breath. Once you do this, most people begin to realise the extent to which they are living in their heads.” Mindfulness is very simple in concept but not easy to practice — at least in the beginning.

Eva Bruha from Switzerland runs the Kalyana Meditation Centre in Dingle in west Kerry, which offers day-long and residential retreats. She also teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction courses around the county, including one in Dingle hospital.

“When I came here first, nine years ago, people didn’t know about ‘mindfulness’. Now it has become part of their consciousness. On my courses I have nurses, teachers, accountants, working mothers — all kinds of people. Many of them have tried traditional medication for ailments like anxiety and stress but it isn’t working for them. Now I have doctors and psychiatrists recommending my courses,” she says.

The ‘Living Mindfully Today’ retreat in Killarney will involve rising at 6.30pm; eating meals mindfully, in silence; learning the techniques of ‘mindfulness’; listening to lectures and walking. The popularity of this retreat and the Timothy Radcliffe talk in January indicate to Bishop Murphy a search for meaning and that is something he welcomes. “It is when people become indifferent that you’re in trouble,” he says.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh will be at the Killarney Convention Centre, April 12-15.See mindfulnessireland.org

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